From Iceland — Future Aesthetics: Holly Herndon Pushes The Boundaries

Future Aesthetics: Holly Herndon Pushes The Boundaries

Published February 8, 2016

Future Aesthetics: Holly Herndon Pushes The Boundaries
Photo by
Courtesy Holly Hernden

Holly Herndon’s ‘Platform’ is one of the most dense, dizzying, constantly surprising electronica LPs of recent times. Devoutly experimental in nature, it melds broken beats, chopped-up chants, drones, spoken poetic fragments, lush synth textures, and all manner of stretched, shattered, pulverised electronic and vocal sounds into a mind-bending whole.

The record is her second, and was something of a breakthrough, becoming a critical success and a staple on discerning “best of 2015” lists. But all this is still just the tip of the iceberg. Holly is also currently pursuing a doctorate in composition at Stanford University in California, and is an active artist who’s presented work everywhere from MoMA PS1 to Berghain. As Sónar Reykjavík draws closer, she’ll be defending her thesis, finishing on the day before the festival begins.

“I have to give a public presentation the night before I fly to Reykjavík,” she laughs wryly, speaking from San Francisco over a patchy Skype connection. “It’s kind of a lot. But my studies are in composition, so it’s all connected. I used to separate all these things, but I realised that was unfeasible, and not true to who I was. So I’ve merged everything.”


Merging a wide range of interests into a communicable form is a process that Holly carries out on several levels. The aesthetic of her creative offering, from album art to videos to social media presence, forms an impressively coherent package, as if part of an overall work.

“I do look at things in a holistic way,” she explains. “Your online presence can be part of a greater artistic gesture. My partner and collaborator Matt Dryhurst gave a presentation at the Goethe Institute, four or five years ago, called Dispatch. His thesis, which was really inspiring, was that the music industry is aging—the idea of everything being tied to and documented by an album cycle is no longer sufficient. How can we take a more holistic view of an artistic output?”

“An example of this is someone like Mykki Blanko,” she continues. “I don’t even think he’s released an album yet, but he releases all these videos and has an amazing Instagram account and is super active on social media. Another example would be Lil B. The idea of a Lil B album doesn’t capture everything that he is. There’s the ‘cooking dance,’ the Twitter beef, all of this other stuff that creates his whole practise. I’m looking at that a little bit.”

Holly Herndon

Brain trust

Another interesting aspect of her working method comes via the inclusion of academic thought. Holly often refers to “thinkers” when she speaks, leafing through her mental catalogue of the current discussions taking place in contemporary art, music (and the industry), digital life and cultural theory. All of this forms a particularly rich perspective, and sometimes flows into her songwriting directly.

“There’s this wealth of thought and information out there—like a crazy brain trust,” she explains. “I wanted to shout out to these thinkers and point to some interesting people. I started thinking about how an album release could be used to investigate other things or talk about issues I care about.”

That said, the messages on ‘Platform’ aren’t offered up freely—the vocals and voices are often abstract cuts of poetic language, or chopped-up lyrics, semi-obscured in a busy sound mix. But despite this fractured lyrical presentation, the album teems with meaning. I wonder out loud if ‘Platform’ is intended more as a starting point, than a final work—a piece ideas can grow from.

“That’s an apt way to put it,” says Holly. “The title came from Benedict Singleton’s writings on ‘The Platform Paradox’. Instead of trying to design a perfect outcome, he talks about building this platform where people can improvise, communicate in new ways, and build their own things. You’re constantly having to reassess and respond to the world around you that’s constantly changing, so it’s impossible to design this perfect future.”

“So yes, the idea of it being a growing thing is really beautiful,” she continues. “It butts heads with the album-release ‘discog culture,’ like, ‘In 2015, this .WAV file was released,’ and that’s it. Because no, that isn’t it. There’s so much more around it, and it’s hard for a single .WAV file to capture that. Maybe that’s why the album sounds frenetic at times—because there’s a lot of ideas going on in there. But I’m also really trying not to prioritise lyrics over conceptual production work. So if I’m working on a piece that’s about fractured experiences online, I want to use my computer, which is my instrument to record those experiences and build that into the piece rather relying solely on lyrics. It seems strange to me when I hear a traditional rock ensemble singing about digital issues. Not that it’s wrong to do that—but for me, if I’m talking about digital life I want to use those tools to investigate and understand how that changes the aesthetics. With new questions and new problems it behooves us as artists to come up with new aesthetics to express new emotions. We can’t rely on the musical tropes of the 70s when we’re dealing with entirely new issues.”

See Holly Herndon perform on Friday 19th in SónarHall at 22:00, and read her thoughts on live performance here.

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